Plan to Recycle $300 Billion Worth of Space Debris

Its hard enough to tackle pollution on Earth, let alone in space. However, the recent NASA UARS spacecraft fall has put the phenomenon of space debris in sharp spotlight. Man-made space objects that are still in orbit but defunct are called orbital debris.

These include several types of items ranging from derelict spacecraft and upper stages of launch vehicles, carriers for multiple payloads, debris intentionally released during spacecraft separation from its launch vehicle or during mission operations. Currently more than 22,000 objects larger than 4 inches are under surveillance. Only about 1,000 of these represent operational spacecraft, the rest are orbital debris.

The higher the altitude, the longer the orbital debris will remain in the Earth’s orbit. Within a month of the UARS spacecraft, German satellite Rosat fell into the Bay of Bengal on an unscheduled re-entry. The lower orbits of the Earth are crowded with satellites, increasing the chances of collision. With two such incidents happening a month apart, there is a serious need to look into this problem. 

There are several solutions being proposed. One of the leading solutions is by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which has a plan to recycle billions of dollars worth of non-working satellites. The agency announced last week that there is more than $300 billion worth of satellites drifting through space 22,000 miles from the Earth’s surface. All of these are defunct or obsolete but still have many working parts. Through DARPA’s Phoenix Program, they plan to harvest these parts like antennae and reuse them in new projects. This could save the Defense Department millions of dollars.

Of course, recycling in space is not going to be as easy as recycling on Earth. There is a need for advanced robotics as well as further research into the exact methodologies of bringing space junk home to be broken down. According to David Barnhart, DARPA program manager:

“Satellites in orbit are not designed to be disassembled or repaired, so it’s not a matter of simply removing some nuts and bolts. This requires new remote imaging and robotics technology and special tools to grip, cut and modify complex systems.”

The agency is talking about using a ground-based robotics system and eventually they hope to set up a satellite servicing station. Smaller particles can be destabilized by firing lasers so that they plunge out of orbit and burn up. The challenge for the future, would be using advanced materials technology to ensure that future space crafts can be easily recycled.

Prudent vehicle design and operation is now needed, with unnecessary launch of satellites curbed. Although cleaning up space provides massive technical and economic challenges, a global effort is needed in order to ensure that space debris can be productively reused.

Image Credit: A nearly full Moon sets as the space shuttle Discovery sits atop Launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Wednesday, March 11, 2009. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also

3 responses

  1. It’s a comfort to see that the authorities are now taking space debris more seriously, but to remove even just a small amount this orbital debris will prove very difficult. We have no choice, in view of the threat space debris poses, not only to other operational equipment in orbit but more importantly to everyone here on Earth. It’s about time these same authorities began to realise that not all space debris burns up during it’s re-entry or lands in the sea, but is impacting our planet daily. Visit my website; put JOHN HALL SPACE DEBRIS in your UK Google slot.

  2. How many Satellites will this one take out.

    Do a little History on this one.

    ALL Should Look Up “2012 DA14”.

    could take out one of more satellites and the junk and debris from the
    hit could end up taking out many more satellites very soon after that.
    All the satellite collision probability will go way up if even one is
    hit. The velocity that the parts would go to would make them missiles
    that would start targeting a chain reaction this would not be good.

    all will be watching this one and pray it goes by us with out a hit.
    Every Scientist alive will be watching this event. Many will be in
    Florida for a very special viewing of the once in a Lifetime Event.
    Professors, Scientist, World Leaders, Ham Radio Operators and Every
    Astronomer will have its eyes on This Event, along with almost every TV
    set on Earth.

    DA14” goes by Earth twice a year and there is no way anyone for sure
    can tell how close the second pass will be till it passes by the Moon
    and Earth and the GRAVITATIONAL FORCE effect that it will have on this
    Asteroid. They may come close but this one is already coming very close
    to begin with. Too close this time or on its second or 3rd pass? Ad a
    Meteor Shower, it might go through or bump into one of them? Or all the
    other orbital debris like Spent Rocket Boosters left in space that can
    no longer be moved by a control center on Earth.

    If a big enough
    one were to slam into the moon in the night sky you would think the sun
    was coming up early only it would be 5 to 7 times as bright. From The
    Sun’s Rays Reflection on all the Debris Field.

    Read your Bible
    While you still can,
    and May our Lord GOD Bless all that do so.
    John 14 : 6
    Luke 13 : 27
    Matthew 7 : 20 – 27

    The Lord’s Little Helper.
    Paul Felix

  3. Dave Barnhart is a very smart guy but the challenges here are enormous. First off, disassembly of these spacecraft will create lots of small pieces of dangerous debris – they could jam gears, etc. This idea requires that we work far away in a difficult environment – almost certainly this would require multiple flights, multiple modifications. This would require many expensive missions. I hope we have the patience, budget, and can fend off the many people ready to pick the idea apart if it does not work the first time. s

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